Culture and society


The Somali clan system has two main lineage lines, the Samale and the Sab. In genealogical terms the Digil and Rahanweyn clan families belong to the Sab, while the Darod, Hawiye, Isaq, and Dir clan families belong to the Samale. Although the clan families are not strictly territorially delimited, they do tend to occupy distinct geographical locations, i.e., the Isaq and the Dir in the north; the Digil and Rahanweyn in the agricultural areas in the south; the Hawiye in and around Mogadishu and the Darod in the south and in the north. The differentiation between Sab and Samale is reflected in the basic contrast between the nomadic pastoralism of the Samale and the sedentary farming of the Sab.

The different clan families are too large to function as viable political units. Below the level of clan families, clans are more significant aspects of social organisation and identification. Clans in turn are further subdivided. The Isaq clan family, for example, historically has been divided into eight main clan groupings - the Habar Awal, the Habar Yunis, the 'lidegall'lidagale, the Arab, and four Habar Ja'lo clans (Lewis 1994: 202). These are further divided into sub-clans, primary lineage groups, and below this, dia-paying groups, whose function is to pay the 'blood wealth' involved in the settlement of feuds. An individual's participation is at the level of the primary lineage group, while the dia-paying group 'is the basic political and judicial unit of pastoral society' (Lewis 1961: 6). Elsewhere however, Lewis remarks that any lineage acting as a separate political unit is capable of functioning as a dia-paying group, albeit on a short-term basis (Lewis 1994: 22). The shir or meeting of clan groups is the traditional means of resolving disputes.

While clanship promotes short-term and unstable political alliances, it also acts as the primary source of stability and cohesion in Somali society. Clan networks provide a means of identification and support that are vital under insecure environmental, social, and political conditions. In general, the clan genealogical system functions as a pastoral mode of adaptation to a harsh physical environment (see Sections 4.1 and 4.2).


The majority, some 85 per cent of the population, are ethnic Somalis, with Bantu and Arab minorities comprising about 15 per cent of the total. Individuals of Bantu descent mainly live in the farming villages in the south, while Arabs have traditionally occupied the coastal cities. Minorities (including a number of 'occupational castes') are not evenly distributed throughout Somalia but are concentrated in the central and southern regions, urban centres, and along the coastline and the Shabelle and Juba Rivers. Bantu minority groups (many of whom are the descendants of slaves imported into Somalia in the nineteenth century) were particularly targeted by the Hawiye and Darod, who seized the agricultural land from Bantu farmers in the inter-riverine areas during the 1990s (Besteman 1999). This followed a long period of marginalisation of the Bantu under the colonial and Barre regimes. The Bantu lack direct clan ties to the dominant Somali clans and the protection from violence which this confers. The Bravanese, a minority with a distinctive culture and language who are situated on the coast south of Mogadishu, have been under Habr Gedir control since the mid-1990s. These and other minority groups were particularly vulnerable to displacement during the course of the civil war in the 1991-2 period, and constitute significant numbers of those who have been internally displaced or who sought safety across international borders as refugees (see Section 5.2).

The Digil and Rahanweyn, as 'minority' clans, were also targeted with violence during the civil war and were victims of killings, lootings, and other human rights violations by the various militias, mainly Aideed's Somali National Alliance (SNA).

A precise definition of the position of minorities is difficult, given that the number of individuals claiming minority status has increased - or was created - because of the civil war and the experience of oppression that particular groups have experienced. The generic term 'Benadiri', for example (used to broadly describe the coastal population of Somalia between Mogadishu and Kismayo), although not in common use before the war, is now adopted by many Somali refugees as an indicator of minority status (Perouse de Monclos 1997).


Danish Immigration Service Report on Minority Groups in Somalia, December 2000 - http://asylumlaw.org/countries/index.cfm?fuseaction=showDocuments&countryID=207

Cultural Orientation Net, 'Somali Bantu: Their History and Culture' - http://www.culturalorientation.net/bantu/sbtoc.html


The vast majority of Somalis are Sunni Muslims, almost entirely of the Shaf'ite school. Islam is an important unifying factor for Somalis, particularly since there is no major schism within its Islamic faith. Along with clanship, Islam represents one of the cornerstones of Somali national identity. Islam spread to Somalia at an early stage (eighth century AD), reinforcing links with Arabia that were already established through migration and trade. There are remaining traces of pre-Islamic traditional religions, particularly in the inter-riverine area (Cassanelli 1982). Amongst Somalis there is a strong tradition of tariiqa, or Sufi orders. The different tariiqas are religious brotherhoods that serve as centres of learning and religious authority. The best-known leader of the Salihiya tariiqa was Sayyed Mohammed Abdulle Hassan in the early twentieth century, who led the anti-colonial movement at the time.

In contemporary Somalia, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism has presented a challenge to the tariiqa and the traditional veneration of saints. The development of Shari'a courts in parts of Mogadishu and Somaliland is of great symbolic importance. Ali Mahdi of the Somali Salvation Alliance (SSA) was the first to adopt Islam in northern Mogadishu in 1994 as a means of securing legitimacy and restoring law and order. While Islam is not a unified force, al-lttihad (the Union) is one of the larger groupings and has been linked to 'terrorist' activity, particularly by the US government as part of their 'war on terrorism'. No military interventions have as yet been made in Somalia to curtail terrorist activity. The assets of the Somali telecommunications company Al Bakarat were frozen by the US administration in an attempt to curtail the transmission of funds to terrorist groups overseas. The operation of al-lttihad is currently believed to have been weakened after repeated attacks by Ethiopia (Connell 2002).


Alongside clanship and Islam, language is a key component of the Somali national identity that was promoted by elite groups in the post-war period (Samatar 1988; Ahmed 1995). The Somali language is a member of a group of languages called Lowland Eastern Cushitic, and is a sub-group of the Cushitic language family. Somali has two major dialects - the standard dialect spoken by most Somalis and the Digil/Rahanweyn dialect spoken primarily in the inter-riverine areas. The settled Bantu communities in the inter-riverine area were long regarded as of different (and inferior) ancestral stock to the Somalis 'proper', the Samale. The standardisation of Somali script in 1972 reflects this historical division. Prior to this date English and Italian served as the official languages of government and the education system. The new script was based upon the dominant dialect and therefore entrenched the social position of the more powerful groups in the central and northern regions (Cassanelli 1996).

The literacy campaigns of the 1970s were part of Barre's democratisation programme. Targeted at the nomadic population, these efforts did not accommodate the dialects spoken by the Digil and Rahanewyn. Despite this, some progress was made in the development of national literacy during the 1970s. Although warfare has disrupted the education system in recent years, figures supplied by the UN in 1990 indicated a literacy rate of 24 per cent of the population.


US Department of State, Background Notes: Somalia - http://state.gov/www/background_notes/somalia_0798_bgn.html

Cultural Orientation Net, 'Somalis, Their History and Culture' - http://www.culturalorientation.net/somali/stoc.html

by: FMO RESEARCH GUIDE - Somalia - David Griffiths - July 2003